Rumi: The Poet of Spiritual Love

From the lecture series: Mystical Tradition — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

By Luke Timothy Johnson, PhD, Emory University

The way of love is emphasized by Jalal ad-Din Rumi, whose dates are 1207–1273. He is called Mawlana, “our Lord,” by followers. Rumi is recognized not only as a great saint but as one of the world’s great poets. He is one of the best known of all the Sufi masters.

Illustration of the meeting of Mavlana and Molla Shams al-Din in Konya
(Image: By Unknown author – Topkapi Palace Museum/Public domain)

The life of Rumi was settled and largely domestic: He was born into a family of scholars and mystics. His name, Rumi, “the Roman,” comes from the fact that he lived in Konya, in present-day Turkey, which was formerly a part of the Roman Empire. Married and with two sons, he took over his father’s madrassa, his elementary school of learning, at 25, but he started his public life of preaching in the mosques of Konya in 1240.

Friendship with a Dervish

The key personal event in Rumi’s life was his meeting and friendship with the Sufi dervish Shams-e Tabrizi in the years 1244–1248. This was an intensely personal and spiritual relationship that brought out new aspects of Rumi’s spirituality and inspired his poetry. Indeed, it was so intense that when Tabrizi mysteriously disappeared, Rumi went in quest of him until he finally realized that the other whom he was seeking was, at some level, himself. His experience of intense friendship, its loss, and his internal recovery became an analogy from his own life of the Sufi’s love for Allah.

This is a transcript from the video series Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

Although he wrote some prose works—lectures, sermons, and letters—it is Rumi’s poetry, inspired by the sama’ of song and dance, that defines his place within Sufism and world literature. The dancing and the singing are an intrinsic part of his poetry, as we pick up from this initial poem:

The song of the spheres in their revolutions
Is what men sing with lute and voice.
As we all are members of Adam,
We have heard these melodies in Paradise.
Though earth and water have cast their veil upon us,
We retain faint reminiscences of these heavenly songs;
But while we are thus shrouded by gross earthly veils,
How can the tones of the dancing spheres reach us?

The purpose of the whirling dervish, the singing and ritual dancing, is to be able to remember, to recollect, dhikr, the heavenly songs and heavenly dances. It is a means of moving into ecstasy.

Learn more about the superlative poetry of Sufism, Islam’s mystical tradition

The “Qur’an in the Persian Language”

Rumi’s largest work is the Masnawi Manawi, the Spiritual Couplets. It’s a single poem of 25,000 verses in six books, together with 300 longer and shorter anecdotes that deal with love. It has been called the “Qur’an in the Persian language.” A sample:

He is a source of evil, as thou sayest,
Yet evil hurts Him not. To make that evil
Denotes in him perfection. Hear from me
A parable. The heavenly Artist paints
Beautiful shapes and ugly: in one picture
The loveliest women in the land of Egypt
Gazing on youthful Joseph amorously;
And lo, another scene by the same hand,
Hell-fire and Iblis with his hideous crew:
Both master-works, created for good ends,
To show His perfect wisdom and confound
The sceptics who deny His mastery.
Could He not evil make, He would lack skill;
Therefore He fashions infidel alike
And Moslem true, that both may witness bear
To Him, and worship One Almighty Lord.

Shocking Paradox

Shams of Tabriz as portrayed in a 1500 painting in a page of a copy of Rumi's poem dedicated to Shams. BNF Paris.
Illustration from Rumi’s Diwan-i Shams-i Tabrizi (Image: By Unknown author/Public domain)

Rumi is capable of shocking paradox, as well: Allah is the source of all, both good and evil, and it all goes to create a masterful tapestry of beauty in the world. His most famous work is the Diwan-i Shams-i Tabrizi, the Works of Shams of Tabriz. This shows the powerful influence of his friend on him because he attributes this poetry to his friend. This is 40,000 lines of ghazals and other miscellaneous love poems, such as this one:

I have put duality away, I have seen that the two worlds are one;
One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call.
I am intoxicated with Love’s cup, the two worlds have passed out of my ken;
I have no business save carouse and revelry.

Learn more about the core beliefs that unite all Muslims across time and space 

A Religion of Love

One of Rumi’s poignant themes is that of the loss of the beloved, with its attendant heartache, and the joy that accompanies reunion.

Rumi’s teaching is, as is appropriate for a poet, indirect and affective. It touches, above all, on every dimension of the love relationship between God and the mystic. Of course, this is one of the reasons—not only the beauty of the language but its emphasis upon the affections—that makes Rumi’s mysticism so attractive. It is a religion of love. He says in the Diwan, “Love for God has stuck fire in the spirit’s bush, burning away all derivative realities.” He never tires of describing the beloved:

“Glory be to God!” means this: O God, how pure and holy Thou art! For every contour of the houris and the black-eyed beauties, the loveliness of all kinds of animals, the freshness and sparkle of all flowers, herbs, sweet waters, and blowing winds, all joys, all hopes, are spots on the face of Thy unique Beauty, dust and debris in Thy lane.

Learn more about how Sufism has aided the spread of Islam through missionary activities

Rumi uses wonderful language to provide insight into the beauty of Allah that transcends every metaphor that can be found to try to express that beauty. He especially emphasizes the mercy of the beloved: “The Sufi answered, ‘Mercy’s marks are in the heart, O self-seeker. On the outside are only the marks of the marks.’” Or again, “His mercy is prior to his wrath. If you want spiritual priority, go seek the prior attribute.” In other words, appeal to the mercy of Allah, and you will receive it.

One of Rumi’s poignant themes is that of the loss of the beloved, with its attendant heartache, and the joy that accompanies reunion. Here, we find his deep personal experience of loss and recovery of his friend: “He that is without pain is a brigand, for to be without pain is to say, ‘I am God.’” And again: “Where there is pain, cures will come. Where there is poverty, wealth will follow.”

Love’s Deepest Form

The deepest form of love for Rumi, as a Sufi, involves an escape from the selfish impulses of the ego, the passing away and the passing away of passing away:

O my soul, I searched from end to end:
I saw in thee naught save the Beloved;
Call me not infidel, O my soul, if I say that thou thyself art He.
Ye who search of God, of God, pursue.
Ye need not search for God is you, is you!
Why seek ye something that was missing ne’er?
Save you, none is, but you are—where, oh, where?

This highest state of union is one in which there is complete identity. And, finally, we find this version of self-annihilation and finding oneself in the Godhead:

I died as mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal, and I was man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as man, to soar
With angels blest; but even from angelhood
I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel soul,
I shall become what no mind e’re conceived.
Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones, “To him we shall return.”

performances of the Mevlevi (whirling dervish) sema at the Hodjapasha Culture Center
The Mawlawi, popularly known as “Whirling Dervishes” are a Sufi religious order founded by Rumi. (Image: By Kemal.kubbe/Public domain)

Rumi himself is the founder of the Mawlawi Sufi order, which still exists, that spread throughout Turkey and played a very large role in Turkey’s culture and history. This order of Sufis was especially associated, as was its founder, with dance and song. It was among the Mawlawi that we find the whirling dervishes of popular lore, and throughout its long history, this order has been led by a descendant of its founder.

Learn more about how the Quran represents both the original and final revelation of God to humankind

Common Questions About Rumi

Q: What religion brought Rumi to us?

Rumi’s religion was Sufism.

Q: Who exactly was Rumi?

Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi was a 13th century Persian poet, a dervish, and a mystic. He spent many years with his spiritual teachers until he met Shamsuddin, whom he became close with and whom Rumi’s followers murdered from jealousy. This sent Rumi into a depression and a devotion. Rumi dedicated his life to expression.

Q: Was Rumi religious?

Rumi was a Sufi, and through this mystical sect of Islam he was able to divine beauty, which he expressed through his beloved poetry.

Q: How did this great spiritual teacher die?

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī passed away at age 66 from illness on December 17, 1273.

This article was updated on November 17, 2020

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